Huawei unveiled its latest flagship phones earlier this week, and after months of leaks and rumors, we finally found out what the Chinese electronics giant has been cooking up.
It turns out Huawei has been working on not one phone, but two — the P9 and P9 Plus. If you missed the memo, here’s a quick recap of the specs.
The first wave of launch markets excludes the U.S., and we’re not really any the wiser as to whether Huawei plans to launch the Android device there. But it will be available in most of Europe and the Middle East from April 16. The P9 comes in 3GB / 32GB and 4GB / 64GB variants, priced at €600 ($685) / €650 ($740) respectively. The larger P9 Plus device will set you back €750 ($855).
With all the vital stats now out of the way, VentureBeat has managed to grab some hands-on time with the Huawei P9. Here’s what it looks like and some of our first impressions.
Look and feel
For many, first impressions count for everything when unboxing a phone for the first time. There’s little question that the Huawei P9 exudes quality from the moment you set hands on it — at only 144 grams and 6.95mm thick, it’s slender and unobtrusive in the hand, and the metal body oozes “premium.” As someone who’s more accustomed to a 5.5-inch screen, the Huawei P9 actually feels a little on the small side, but that says more about the market elsewhere than anything else. The Huawei P9 isn’t really too small.
Flip the phone over, and you can instantly see what all the hype has been about: The Huawei P9 has been “coengineered” by German optics company Leica. And the phone has not one, but two lenses — one for the RGB camera that specializes in capturing color, and one for the monochrome camera that’s all about capturing the details.
As you can see, the lenses are flush and embedded into the back of the device — there is no bump to be seen. Just south of the lenses is the fingerprint scanner.
Another positive here is that the (micro) SIM is accessible from a slot in the left-hand side of the phone, so there’s no need to remove the back cover.
You’ll also see a secondary slot in the SIM tray — you’ll be pleased to know that this can be used to expand the storage via an SD card.
At the launch event on Wednesday, Huawei CEO Richard Yu said that the Huawei P9 is a dual-SIM device. However, the unit VentureBeat has access to most certainly isn’t a dual-SIM phone — we can only assume that there are dual-SIM variants available in other markets.
A quick peek at the bottom of the device reveals a couple of notable surprises.
The Huawei P9 doesn’t use a micro-USB connection — as has become the norm across the (non-iOS) smartphone realm — instead it uses the new USB Type-C standard. This means it has a reversible-plug connector, so the cable works whichever way around you insert it. With micro-USB, it can be fiddly trying to find the right way in.
This phone is not the first to get the USB Type-C treatment, but it’s one of the first. While it is more convenient, it also renders all those accumulated micro USB cables redundant, so you’ll have to invest in more to spread around your house and in the car. Luckily, I’m already using the OnePlus 2, which also has a Type-C connection, so it’s an easy transition for me.
The second “surprise,” for want of a better word, is that the headphone jack is on the bottom of the phone. That’s not entirely a new concept on Android — HTC and Sony have both sold devices with a bottom-placed jack, as has Huawei on a previous device. Samsung, too, has switched the headphone jack to the bottom with its latest Galaxy handsets. But it’s still not the norm, and it will take just a little bit of getting used to if this is a first for you. Oh, and you’ll also find the one and only speaker to the right of the charging port.
Down the right-hand side of the phone you’ll find the volume and power buttons — what more is there to say?
In terms of colors, Huawei is making six variants available in total, though the availability of the colors will depend on the market and the carrier (if you’re getting it as part of a contract). In the U.K., for example, only two colors will be made available.
To summarize, the Huawei P9 is a beautiful piece of equipment to hold and to look at. But beyond the superficial facet of aesthetics lies the software, which is more important.
Software: It sucks
The Huawei P9, as with other Huawei devices, comes preloaded with EMUI (Emotion UI) — its own flavor of Android. In this case, it’s EMUI 4.1, which is a skin that sits atop Marshmallow (Android 6.0).
I’ll confess that this is the first Huawei smartphone that I have used, so I can’t compare it to previous handsets. But I have to be honest, using this for even five minutes reminds me why I jumped ship several years ago for stock or near-stock Android phones. Way too much tinkering has gone on here, and it’s very much to the device’s detriment.
Pre-installed apps, or bloatware as some people call it, are a major bugbear of mine. And the P9 has lots of them. One folder on the homescreen, ominously titled “Games,” has a ton of crap in there. And another folder called “Top Apps” has some really good apps in there — such as EyeEm, Todoist, and News Republic. The company has even taken the liberty of pre-installing Facebook and Twitter.
My initial fear was that these apps would not be uninstallable, and my heart sank when I first saw the games folder. BUT, I’m happy to report they can be removed from the phone through the usual legitimate methods. There are other system apps that can’t be uninstalled though, and this is where EMUI’s downfall begins.
You see, Huawei adopts an iOS-style approach to its homescreen. There is no separate app drawer to hide all those apps and keep your most-used apps front and center. Your homescreen is your app drawer. And that’s one of the things I hate about iOS compared to Android, so it’s disappointing to see Huawei adopt this approach.
Normally with Marshmallow, you can drag and drop an app to delete it, or remove it from the homescreen. With Huawei’s EMUI, you can only delete it — and if it’s a core system app, you obviously can’t even do that. The upshot of this will likely be the creation of a folder somewhere on your homescreen with the label “SHITE” appended to it.
When you’re setting up the P9, the EMUI interface constantly bugs you for permission to access various facets of the phone. This happens more than once, too — at intermittent periods a message will pop up asking for permission, even when you’ve already “denied” the request.
Requesting access to core phone features is a huge red flag to me, even though it is easy enough to hit the “Deny” button. When you open the Gallery app, you’re told that “this feature requires the following permissions to be enabled.” All I wanted to do was view some photos; how is that a “feature”? Also, while it gives the impression that you need to activate your location, it transpires all you need to do is hit the “back” button to circumvent this request. But when you close the app and start it again, you’ll be faced with the same request once more.
Moreover, why should the gallery app require access to your SMS? I’m not saying there isn’t a reason, but I bet it’s not a very good one.
There are some nice touches, though. For example, some of the screen transition animations are slick. It also has Wi-Fi+, which is a smart little tool that can automatically switch the phone between Wi-Fi and mobile data depending on the quality of the connection.
In summary: Android purists who like the stock experience should avoid the Huawei P9 like the plague. If you are not one to fuss over such things, then you might not be completely irritated by the experience.
Huawei spent more than half its keynote waxing lyrical about the P9’s camera and the company’s new bosom buddy, Leica. “Huawei is excited to give P9 users the best smartphone photography experience by leveraging the unrivalled capabilities of Leica, the leader in the world of imaging for more than 100 years,” said the company’s CEO. “Consumers around the world use their smartphones to take billions of pictures each year, making photography critical to user experience. P9 users can now capture images with unmatched clarity, richness and authenticity, with a masterfully designed and powerful smartphone that looks and feels incredible.”
So we gave it a quick test drive to see how it stacks up.
To recap, on the rear of the Huawei are two camera lenses: The RGB incarnation works on capturing the color, while the monochrome one is all about the detail. Together, Huawei and Leica promise that you’ll be able to “create images of superior detail, depth and color.” Additionally, Yu said that the P9 captures 270 percent more light than the latest iPhone, and up to 50 percent better contrast in colors compared to other top-end smartphones.
Using the respective automatic settings, I took some comparative photos with my OnePlus 2 and the Huawei P9, and here are the results. The first four sets were taken in fairly bright sunlight, while in the latter two sets, rain clouds are present in force.
In bright conditions, I didn’t notice a huge disparity between the cameras on my OnePlus 2 and the Huawei P9, but the colors were a little more natural on the P9. Perhaps a professional photographer with a keener eye would be able to notice more of a difference. However, as the light fades, the P9 definitely continued to shine. Another thing I observed was that the autofocus was noticeably faster, with less messing around required to set a simple shot up — this is especially important when trying to take photos of kids, animals, or any other subject prone to disobeying a photographer’s commands.
But it’s not just the optical lenses and sensors the companies are touting, it’s the software too. The camera app has been redesigned by Huawei in cahoots with Leica, with “swiping” very much the order of the day: right for camera mode, left for settings, and up for Pro camera mode. There are myriad options in there to play around with.
You’ve probably guessed this already, but I’m not a professional photographer. However, I am a keen amateur snapper, and I found the Pro mode particularly great. By swiping up in normal camera mode, you’re given more-or-less total control over the camera, including over shutter speed (S), ISO settings, exposure value (EV), auto white balance (AWB), and even the autofocus (AF). Granted, I’m probably not knowledgeable enough about photography to truly get the most out of this, but it does offer a great deal of options to tailor the outcome of your photos.
The Huawei P9 is on the cusp of being a truly wonderful phone — the device is slick, slender, and beautiful to touch. But aesthetics can only go so far, and I was taken aback by the heavy-handed approach Huawei has taken to Android — there is no need for this degree of alteration. This alone would rule me out from using this as my main device.
But the camera is pretty darn good, and I think I could have a lot of fun playing around with the countless settings and controls Huawei and Leica offer in support of its premium lenses and sensors. This is the main selling point in the Huawei P9, and anyone who prioritizes the camera when choosing a new phone will likely want to check this out.
You’re also probably wondering why I haven’t really addressed other issues, such as the display and sound. Well, at the smartphone high-end, I honestly find that there just isn’t too much difference between devices. The Huawei P9 has an HD screen, and photos / videos appear clear and crisp. I think some people may be disappointed in the single speaker on the bottom, but I pretty much always use headphones or a Bluetooth speaker, so that’s not a major concern for me.
To get into the nitty-gritty of the device will require using it for a much longer period of time. It can take weeks or months to really notice the smaller foibles or hidden gems — the things that infuriate or delight. I’m prepared to revisit this one a little further down the road.